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Trinity College Dublin

Ireland's PR-STV electoral system:

a need for reform?

 

The Irish electoral system: since independence in 1922 members (TDs) of the Irish parliament, Dáil Eireann, have been elected by the system of PR-STV (proportional representation by the single transferable vote). This system is enshrined in the 1937 constitution, which can be amended only by referendum. In both 1959 and 1968 a referendum took place on a proposal to replace PR-STV by the single-member plurality system ('first past the post'); on each occasion the proposal was defeated.

For an explanation of how PR-STV works, and a specimen ballot paper, click here. Since voters may rank order all of the candidates listed on the ballot paper, PR-STV offers voters a choice of candidate between parties, within parties, and without regard to party. Consequently, there is both inter-party and intra-party electoral competition.

For results of the 2007 general election click here; for results of the 2009 EP election click here; for the 2011 election see here; for the 2014 EP election click here; for the 2016 election click here; for results of elections 1948-2007 click here.

From time to time the question is raised in Irish politics as to whether PR-STV is dysfunctional in its effects and should be replaced by something different, perhaps a mixed system along German lines. The electoral reform debate tends to be impressionistic rather than evidence-based and usually lacks a comparative perspective. In the two referendums of 1959 and 1968, the central issue was the alleged tendency of any kind of PR to produce unstable and internally divided coalition governments, and perhaps to lead to the collapse of democracy, compared with the supposedly 'strong, effective, single-party governments' produced by the single-member plurality system. This line of argument is no longer taken seriously and the merit of the principle of proportional representation is now generally accepted in Ireland. The issue of contention is whether STV is the best method of realising this principle.

 

Among the points made AGAINST retaining PR-STV as the Irish electoral system (best read in conjunction with the points for) are:

 

Among the points made FOR retaining PR-STV as the Irish electoral system (best read in conjunction with the points against) are:

 

OVERALL: The impact of electoral systems on many aspects of politics in any given country is less strong than is sometimes assumed. While electoral systems do have an impact on, for example, the proportionality of electoral outcomes, and to a lesser degree on the shape of party systems, it is not realistic to expect a change in the electoral system to transform the style of politics in a country. For example, PR-STV was not responsible for the economic boom in Ireland and neither is it responsible for the economic crisis. Generally, political institutions that operate in one fashion in country A will not necessarily produce the same consequences if transplanted to country B. In their cross-national comparative study of the impact of a number of political reforms, including changes to the electoral system, Shaun Bowler and Todd Donovan (The Limits of Electoral Reform, Oxford University Press, 2013) strike a cautionary note, arguing that such reforms tend to have minimal or zero impact. All electoral institutions simply have less causal power than either some defenders of the status quo or some advocates of reform realise.

Considering the constituency role of MPs in particular, it is all too easy to exaggerate the influence of the electoral system. Comparative cross-national research suggests that the causal connection between the electoral system and the constituency role of MPs is much weaker than some people imagine, and it is very likely that the demand from voters for constituency service from their TDs, and TDs' readiness to respond to this, would be altered little by the adoption of a different electoral system in Ireland.

Compare, for example, these two examples of constituency campaigning. In Denmark – where, as explained above, candidates of each party seek personal preference votes in order to give themselves a better chance of election than the other candidates of their party – candidates may mention that they live or were born in the constituency, but in their personal literature they campaign mainly in terms of the national-level issues they will highlight if elected. In contrast, in the UK, where there is only one seat per constituency, and hence no intra-party rivalry, it is common for candidates to emphasise their local involvement in fighting the closure of local post offices or raising the issue of sewerage in a river, as in election material of Steve Gilbert, a successful Liberal Democrat candidate at the 2010 UK election.

In short, there is good reason to question the closeness of any link between electoral systems and the constituency orientation of MPs: when the voters want and expect their MPs to pay attention to local matters the MPs will more or less have to respond, regardless of the electoral system, while when voters do not then MPs will not engage significantly in such work.

 

For discussion of political reform in Ireland generally, including possible changes to the electoral system, click here.

 

More reading for those interested:

Michael Gallagher and Paul Mitchell (eds), The Politics of Electoral Systems, paperback edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Chapters on a number of countries explore the relationship, if any, between electoral system and MPs' behaviour, and there is a chapter assessing the record of PR-STV in Ireland: 'Ireland: the discreet charm of PR-STV'

John Coakley and Michael Gallagher (eds), Politics in the Republic of Ireland, 5th edition (London: Routledge and PSAI Press, 2010). Chapter 4 by Richard Sinnott on 'The electoral system', and Chapter 8 on 'The constituency role of Dáil deputies', both discuss the issues, including assessment of whether there really is a causal relationship between PR-STV and some observed features of Irish politics, and consideration of whether TDs' constituency work can be considered to amount to 'clientelism'

 

 

Cover of PES Cover of PRI5 Cover of Irish Elections 1948-77

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Last updated 15 March, 2016 9:57 AM